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Noreen Webb

Noreen Webb: Educational Researcher Studies Collaborative Teaching, Learning in Math Classrooms

As a math major during her undergraduate years at Swarthmore College, Noreen Webb was fascinated by the way that mathematics is taught and what facilitated students’ learning – or lack of learning – of the subject.

“I’ve always been intrigued by why some people are anxious about math and why they find it difficult,” says Webb, a researcher and professor in the Social Research Methodology Division (SRM), who was elected to the National Academy of Education earlier this year. “There are probably a lot of different reasons, some of which may have to do with the kind of teaching they are exposed to: there is [only] a right or wrong answer.”

Webb’s work includes a project with UCLA Education Professor Megan Franke on teaching and collaborative learning in mathematics classrooms in Los Angeles area schools, including UCLA Lab School and William Green Elementary School in Lawndale, California. In April, Webb presented a paper titled, “The Role of Groupwork in Performance Assessment” at the annual meeting of the National Council of Measurement in Education in Chicago. Her presentation was based on a white paper that she co-wrote with colleagues from the UC system, Stanford University, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), Pearson, and the Human Resources Research Organization on “Psychometric Considerations for the Next Generation of Performance Assessment.”

By outlining the psychometric challenges that occur when trying to measure performance in groups, Webb underscored the fact that curriculum standards for teaching English language arts, history, social studies, science, and technical subjects increasingly stress “speaking and listening.” This practice calls for students to participate in large and small conversational groups in order to learn to work together and to develop oral communication and interpersonal skills. For example, the mathematics standards within Common Core highlight the need for students to be able to communicate and justify their ideas and to respond to the arguments of other students.

“I’ve always had a foot in two areas; one as an educational psychologist and the other as a quantitative methodologist,” says Webb. “In fact, my earliest research sprung from a methodological – really a statistical – question. At that time, researchers were grappling with the statistical issue of how to analyze data that come from classrooms and schools where people are working together. One of my first studies looked at how students interact with each other and how they learn and how they influence each other.

“Some people think of mathematics classrooms as places where a teacher tells students what routines and procedures to follow, without necessarily explaining why they are to be followed. I started looking at smaller [learning] groups and the kinds of interactions that happen there, trying to solve the statistical issues of analyzing data where students influence each other in a variety of ways within the context of mathematics.”

Webb and Franke, who have been researching teaching and collaborative learning for the past decade, examine the ways that students can learn from one another. Striving for success in their own partnership mirrors the collaborative spirit demonstrated by their research subjects – both students and their teachers – in math classrooms.

“I had been involved with what students were doing and saw how their engagement with each other truly shaped what they learned in math,” says Webb. “I tried to understand how to put students together in ways that would be optimal for their learning, and ways that were beneficial in terms of how they interacted with each other. But I didn’t have much experience with bringing the teachers into the picture, and [needed] a good way of capturing how the teacher influenced what went on between students.

“Megan is very expert in working with teachers,” says Webb. “She’s a teacher herself, and is very interested in having teachers engage with students, to help them develop their thinking in a deep way, and in using students’ thinking to help guide their instruction. We decided it would be productive to join forces, to look at the math classroom as a complete picture.”

Webb says that their findings have revealed that “you can’t just give teachers a menu of behaviors [or] just tell them to have their students ask each other questions or compare their work. It is important that teachers pay really close attention to what students are saying and doing, and use the details of what they’re saying and doing to ask [students] further questions,” she notes. “Teachers need to probe students’ thinking and ask very specific questions about what they think of what someone else has just said, and how their ideas differ from ideas that their classmates propose.

“The particular action or practice that a teacher may engage in at any particular time has to be adapted to what just occurred at that moment. We’re finding that a teacher has to be very attuned moment by moment to what is happening in the classroom to be able to support students in explaining their own thinking and engaging with others’ thinking.”

In her co-authored white paper, Webb writes that “employers view the ability to collaborate with others to accomplish tasks to be a core 21st Century competency that is very important for both landing and keeping a job.” She says that this ability to work in groups – and researchers’ ability to build and measure teamwork skills – is an important issue.

“There are many arenas where building teamwork skills may help people solve problems efficiently and productively,” Webb says. “I am intrigued by having seen students who were very skilled at math do less well than students who were not as good at math, and that was because of the nature of the ways they worked together as a team.

“Students who explain [concepts] to each other and answer each other’s questions sometimes do better than students who are ‘very proficient,’ but who do not dig very deeply into each other’s thinking about the problems. Moreover, you can learn a lot by explaining to others. You may not realize the way you’re thinking is disorganized or incomplete. Until you start to explain it, you may not see gaps in your thinking that are making it difficult to solve a problem.”

Webb extends her belief in collaboration to her students in the SRM division.

“I always try to involve my students in every step of my research, from conceptualizing a research idea, designing the studies, helping to collect data, figuring out coding systems, analyzing and presenting results,” she says. “They’re my co-authors. A lot of my students have unique and rich backgrounds themselves. Some have been teachers; they have research experience of various kinds, so they bring their own perspectives. Particularly at this, the graduate level, they really are colleagues.

“In my teaching, my goal is not to be a lecturer. It’s important to me that students understand conceptually what is going on in addition to being able to use methods in an intelligent way. I really want students involved in talking about these ideas, so I incorporate collaborative work, even during class time, as much as I can, to give students the opportunity to explain what they think an idea means to them, and so they can engage with other [students’] thinking and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t think of it that way.’”


Photo by Westside Studio